Sometimes I spend so much time focusing on the complicated details of Social Security claiming strategies for married couples that it's easy to overlook the basic rules. A reader e-mailed me the other day with a simple question: How long does one need to be married to qualify for Social Security benefits?
It's a great question, but the answer is anything but simple. As with so many aspects of Social Security rules, the answer is: It depends. The rules governing minimum length of marriage to qualify for Social Security benefits differ depending on the type of benefits in question: spousal, survivor or divorced spouse.
I'd like to thank William “BJ” Jarrett of the Social Security Administration's national press office for supplying me with the details of these various rules.
For a Social Security spouse's benefit, a spouse must be legally married to the worker at the time the application is filed and for at least one continuous year immediately before the day of the application. The application actually can be filed before the first anniversary of the marriage as long as the anniversary occurs prior to processing.
Same-sex couples who are legally married and reside in one of the 16 states or the District of Columbia that recognizes their marriage now are entitled to the same Social Security benefits as traditional married couples.
There is an exception to the one-year duration requirement: if the spouse and the worker are the natural parents of a minor child. Both the child and the caregiving parent are entitled to benefits equal to one-half of the worker's benefit, subject to a family maximum amount that ranges from 150% to 180% of the worker's benefit. The worker's benefit is not affected by the family maximum restrictions.
A caregiving parent is subject to annual earnings cap restrictions. For 2013, the parent would forfeit $1 in benefits for every $2 earned over $15,120. A caregiving parent's benefits stop when the child turns 16. Spousal benefits can resume when the individual reaches 62.
For a Social Security survivor's benefit, a widow or widower must have been married to the deceased worker at the time of his or her death and for at least nine months immediately prior to the day in which the worker died, unless one of the exceptions is met.
Some of the exceptions include the worker's death was accidental or the worker's death occurred in the line of duty as an actively serving member of a uniformed service.
If you are divorced, but your marriage lasted 10 years or longer, you can receive benefits on your ex-spouse's record, even if he or she has remarried, as long as you are unmarried and are 62 or older.
In addition, if your ex-spouse has not applied for retirement benefits but can qualify for them, you can receive benefits on his or her record if you have been divorced for at least two years.
As a divorced spouse, your benefit is equal to one-half of your ex-spouse's full retirement age amount or disability benefit if you start receiving benefits at your full retirement age. You can collect spousal benefits on your ex as early as 62, but those benefits will be worth just 35% of the ex-spouse's benefit amount.
If you claim Social Security benefits before your full retirement age, you will receive the largest benefit to which you are entitled — whether it is based on your own work record, your ex-spouse's or a combination of the two.
But if you wait until your full retirement age — currently 66 — to claim benefits, you can file a restricted claim for spousal benefits only and allow your own benefits to accrue delayed retirement credits worth 8% per year up until 70.
If you remarry, you generally cannot collect benefits on your former spouse's record unless your later marriage ends, whether by death, divorce or annulment.
If your ex-spouse dies, you could get benefits just the same as a widow or widower, provided your marriage lasted 10 years or more — even if your ex had remarried. Your benefits would not affect the benefits of his or her surviving spouse.
And if you remarry after 60, the remarriage will not affect your eligibility for survivor benefits as an ex-spouse.